Corruption and Long Delays—TSA’s Kelly Hoggan Removed From Office

June 16th, 2016

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by Christie Chung, Research Assistant

In the wake of 9/11, airports face the difficult task of balancing national security concerns with the need for customer convenience and efficiency. This summer travel season from June through August, approximately 231 million passengers will fly on airlines across the country—up 4% from the same period last year. However, if the weeks preceding these summer months are any indication, the bottlenecks caused by security screening will continue to delay flights, frustrate passengers, and stymie travel plans.

Against this backdrop of growing exasperation with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (HCOGR) announced Kelly Hoggan’s resignation as the TSA’s Head of Security on May 23rd, 2016. Effective immediately, Hoggan’s dismissal ends a 3-year stint he spent overseeing the daily field operations of TSA employees nationwide.

At the same time that serious problems such as high employee turnover and steep budget cuts beleaguered the TSA’s ability to operate effectively, Hoggan received more than $90,000 in bonuses during the 2013-2014 fiscal year—on top of his base salary of $181,500. Employing a practice known as “smurfing,” Hoggan was able to avoid drawing scrutiny to the extra $10,000 a month he received during the 13-month period.

“Smurfing is breaking specific financial transactions into something below the reporting requirement,” explains John Roth, Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). At the time, TSA regulations “were so loose that it was technically permissible.”

At the HCOGR’s hearing on May 12, the Committee’s chairman Jason Chaffetz, grappled with how those bonuses could’ve been given to “somebody who oversees a part of the operation that was in total failure.” Indeed, a leaked report from the DHS reveals the glaring extent of the TSA’s inefficiency. In 70 covert tests, internal auditors successfully smuggled various fake weapons and explosives past security screening in 95% of all cases.

TSA officials are alleged to have routinely punished those who spoke out against mismanagement. At an investigatory hearing the HCOGR held before reaching their decision to remove Hoggan, a number of employees testified against the TSA.  Mark Livingston, a manager in the Office of the Chief Risk Officer at TSA Headquarters, claims that he was demoted by two pay grades after reporting security violations and other transgressions committed by TSA employees. Andrew Rhoades, a TSA manager at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, tells a similar tale of retribution as the Administration tried to reassign him from Florida to Iowa after it was suspected that he spoke to the press.

While it remains to be seen whether administrative reform will lead to greater agency transparency, certain airports are experimenting with new methods to ease congestion. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, new passenger screening lanes redirect suspicious bags toward a separate conveyor belt for additional screening. The new lanes also automatically recirculate empty bins back for reuse at the beginning of lines, saving personnel the labor of manual collection.  Radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips embedded in the bins enable officials to use radio waves to track the location of the bins at all times.

            In addition to reevaluating the functional design of security lines, the TSA urges travelers to consult it’s new app, My TSA, for real-time information on wait-times. Like many other apps, My TSA relies on the participation of travelers to provide up-to-the-minute updates on wait-times.

Lastly, in an effort to boost enrollment in its PreCheck program from the 2.77 million currently enrolled to 25 million, there are talks that the TSA may lower the program’s $85 fee. TSA PreCheck expedites wait-times by pre-vetting travelers. To join PreCheck, a traveler first submits an online application and then visits one of the TSA’s application centers to provide required documentation and get fingerprinted. Good for 5 years, enrollment in the program allows travelers to retain their shoes, laptops, liquids, belts, and outer garments as they proceed through security. In a Bloomberg study involving 1,000 domestic travelers, half cited the current price as their reason for non-enrollment.

While these efforts may come too late to salvage this travel season, they may hint to a future of increased security efficiency and greater agency accountability.

 

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